The sport of road racing has always had an arms-length relationship with the IAAF, the international governing body for the sport of track & field (athletics to the rest of the world outside the U.S). With the Marathon being the lone road event on the Olympic schedule, when we speak of the IAAF and its 212 national governing body members — like USA Track & Field in the United States — we speak mostly about track racing, jumping and throwing. Yes, there is a biennial World Half-Marathon Championship — coming to Copenhagen, Denmark on March 29th — but it is no exaggeration to say that the sport of road racing has been under-served by the IAAF and its members for a long, long time.
That reality hasn’t just been detrimental to the sport of road racing, it has hurt the IAAF as well. Since the vast majority of runners are not involved in making Olympic or World Championship teams, the tens of millions of recreational and non-elite runners around the world have rallied beneath the flags of independent local events, robbing the runners, the events, and their federation overseers of the marketing potential their huge aggregate numbers might have otherwise represented.
This past week the monarchs in Monaco unveiled World Running, a global website whose goal, according to its About Page, “is to bring the world of running together, with a global Ranking system, expert advice and the latest running news.”
At the heart of World Running is its global Rankings system through which runners of all abilities can virtually compete on a worldwide basis. The concept is simple; every time you finish a race, whether a local 5k or a World Marathon Major, you input your finishing time and event into World Running, and through a mathematical algorithm your global ranking is produced.
Designed by Realbuzz out of Great Britain, the site also promises expert training advice, training guides, nutritional tips, injury advice, as well as an extensive events calendar, charity fundraising listings and the latest running news.
Former London Marathon Race Director Dave Bedford, the current chairman of the IAAF Road Running Commission, has been “involved and supportive” of the concept. However, according to the one-time 10,000-meter world record holder, the original idea was suggested some 2 ½ years ago by IAAF General Secretary Essar Gabriel of France. I spoke with Bedford Saturday from his home in London.
“I think it is fair to say that the IAAF failed to fully understand the significance of the Running Boom in road racing over the last 30 to 40 years,” he began. “But many federations realized later in the day that road racing is very much a part of the sport of athletics (the international designation for what Americans call track and field). And, in a general sense, long distance running has never been stronger. It is the one part of athletics that goes through all levels of society, which makes it interesting to the governing body. In fact, it’s fair to say that road racing was lucky that in the early boom period (1970s — `80s) the governing bodies and the IAAF didn’t poke their noses in too early so the sport had the opportunity to develop and grow without the restrictions that track and field had. I think now the IAAF isn’t thinking it can control road running, but engage with it and be supportive where that is useful.”
Bedford points to the IAAF’s Gold, Silver, and Bronze labeling that race organizers can earn after establishing a set of standards in the areas of measurement and timing, doping control, quality of elite field, size of prize purse, and media distribution.
“Road races benefit from that ‘Stamp of Quality’,” he said. “Those labels make it much easier to get government approval and sponsorship. It is a good example of how the IAAF should work with road racing, not ‘you can, you can’t’. So the IAAF and the NGBs are trying to find out how to give added value to the sport so races will be happy to associate with them.”
The inference in Bedford’s last remark confirms that the sport of road racing has not been pleased with its NGB associations for much of the last several generations. And there remains a nascent separatist movement lying just beneath the surface, at least here in the USA.
“What works in one country won’t work in others,” continued Bedford, who was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to athletics and charitable fundraising. “Some countries have autonomous (road racing) bodies. In the United Kingdom road racing is administered by Run Britain which has its own chief executive and board of directors. The chief executive interacts with UK Athletics, but Run Britain administers and develops road racing from the UK perspective. So there are different versions. Some road events are so big they feel no need to be associated with their federation, and that might be the most appropriate way to act. It is difficult to say how it should be at the world level. But each nation should look at the different options and choose what works best for them.”
During the second Running Boom of the 2000s, the move has been toward mass participation and charity fund-raising and away from an emphasis on competition. This has coincided with the domination of East African runners at the top end of the sport, meaning there have been fewer internationally acclaimed personalities (like Bedford who ran in distinctive red socks) to build the sport around.
“There is an argument that might say, if you look at the youngsters, particularly from Africa, we see a different career path,” Dave explained. “In my time you only ran a marathon after your career on the track was over. That model is gone. Now you have someone like (Tsegaye) Mekonnen, the winner in Dubai (Marathon) this year, who is still a junior (18 years old), and in his first time out runs 2:04! That never happened before. So things change.
“And while I don’t believe we’ve got it right yet, the principles of the World Marathon Majors do have it right, in that we are trying to create a reason to link one marathon with another. It’s why we came together, and within the sport we have branded World Marathon Majors, though not yet to the general public.
“What we have to remember is that we are still a very young sport. If you compare – the British AAAs (what now is UK Athletics) was founded in the 1880s in Victorian times. Road racing has had a different journey, and virtually disappeared in most countries for many decades, except for the marathon. As a sport it has a long way to go. Let’s remember this, everything in the garden is not growing well. But we face this challenge from a strong position. Every major city has a marathon, a half-marathon, or at least a 10K. We have a sport that is participated in by all different sorts of people. The challenge is to make a connection top to bottom. Yes, it should be easier than it has been, but we need role models.
“But as a sport we are in a unique situation. We’ve not gotten all the answers yet, but we are seeking to find the answers, and from a position of strength. With cross country we might say we’ve missed the boat. But in road racing we need to get stronger and be better run while continuing to take advantage of the connection between elite athletes and health and recreational runners.
“Aspiration is at the core, in the arteries, of the World Running rankings. And the icing on the cake is the full-blown directory with its support for those who don’t have coaches and want advice. Linking with those people is what we are trying to achieve.”
We might even want to say it’s about time.